California church locks up homeless people and makes them panhandle, feds say

Authorities arrested 12 leaders of a California-based church Tuesday after prosecutors accused them of holding homeless people against their will and using them as forced labor.

Imperial Valley Ministries is a non-denominational church headquartered in El Centro in Southern California, but the operation has opened roughly 30 affiliated churches across the United States and Mexico, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California. Its stated mission “is to ‘restore’ drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same,” prosecutors said.

In reality, the former pastor and other church leaders were extracting labor from dozens of primarily homeless people at the group homes, “coercing them to surrender welfare benefits and compelling them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders,” prosecutors said in announcing the arrests.

All of the known victims have been freed, according to prosecutors.

“These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement.

The church ran multiple group homes in the El Centro area, Calexico and Chula Vista. Church members recruited people to come to the homes from Texas, San Diego and beyond, promising food, shelter and eventually help to go back home, prosecutors said.

The church ran some homes where windows were nailed shut, “leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call police,” prosecutors said. Leaders refused to let one victim seek medical care for a prolapsed uterus, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday. A diabetic victim was denied a doctor, medical supplies and food to treat low blood sugar, the indictment said.

Victims’ driver’s licenses, bank cards, Social Security cards, medicines and more were allegedly confiscated. Those who broke rules — for example, by talking about their family members or the outside world — were punished, sometimes by having their food withheld, the indictment said. One victim was allegedly told “that to receive a toothbrush she had to ‘earn it.’”

The church leaders were arrested in El Centro, San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, charged with forced labor, conspiracy, benefits fraud and more, prosecutors said.

Imperial Valley Ministries officials declined to comment to CNN, “saying they were on their way to court,” the TV network reported.

After victims were checked into the homes, they were told they had to agree to strict rules, with prosecutors saying “church leaders locked victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks; confiscated identification documents such as driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers and identification cards, in order to prevent victims from escaping; (and) stole victims’ welfare benefits.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Tenorio said at a news conference that “dozens of victims have alleged the same thing — once they were inside the group homes, the IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many as people as possible for as long as possible,” CNN reported.

“Victims of human trafficking are often unseen by society, left pleading in silence,” FBI Special Agent-In-Charge Scott Brunner said in a statement. “Today, the FBI is proud to break up the labor trafficking alleged to have been committed by the leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries in Imperial Valley and San Diego.”

The El Centro church was raided by the FBI in May 2018, KYMA reported.

Jessica Solorio, founder of Spread The Love Charity, told KYMA at the time that her center has helped people leaving Imperial Valley Ministries who “told us that they were brought under false pretenses, they weren’t exactly sure what they were getting into. So, one way or another, they would leave the program, and were stuck in El Centro homeless.”

Prosecutors said there are church locations in San Jose, Los Angeles and Santa Ana in California, as well as in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Brownsville.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.